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Armenia cannot constantly “bluff” in the regional geopolitical game: interview by Armen Ayvazyan

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Interview by Armen Ayvazyan, PhD in Political Science, Director of the “Ararat” Center for Strategic Research

REGNUM: After the May elections in Armenia the authorities have succeeded to further strengthen their positions internally and, it seems, to gain a free hand in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. How would you then explain the unprecedented harsh statement of 28 May 2007 by the leading Armenian internet-resources, who represent a rather serious contingent of active and professional part of the Armenian society?

During the pre-election campaign the problem of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh REGNUM) and the liberated territory of Armenia (the regions around Nagorno Karabakh currently under Armenian control are implied — REGNUM) were practically left out from the discourse. Almost all parties side-stepped this question, at best offering banal, declarative and vague formulas about the necessity of achieving the conflict's settlement by the way of “mutual concessions” and the like and so on. Meanwhile, during a brief period after the elections the rhetoric about the surrender of the liberated territory to Azerbaijan has sharply galvanized. The announcements have been made on the level of the co-chairmen of the OSCE's Minsk Group, to leave aside the victorious proclamations by Azerbaijans highest dignitaries, about reaching agreements on factual capitulation of Yerevan and its readiness to surrender six or even all seven districts of the former Azerbaijani SSR. Rather than being categorically and unequivocally refuted by official Yerevan, at times these discussions have been receiving direct and indirect approval in the statements by Foreign and Defense Ministers of Armenia about the inevitability of “painful concessions” as well as in Yerevan's frequent speechlessness, which many interpret as tacit consent. All of this compounded with the secrecy of the negotiations is generating great concern in Armenian society about the fate of the liberated territory, that is about their very own security.

REGNUM : What is the value of these territories for the Armenian society?

The liberation of Armenian territories around the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast has been generally viewed as a military necessity the only means of suppressing the Azerbaijani launching points in 1991-1994. This explanation, reflecting the field situation during the Artsakh war, is absolutely correct in a military sense; nevertheless, it is not comprehensive and, consequently, is deficient in several aspects.

Chronologically, this lone explanation corresponds to the strategic thinking of the Armenian leaders in the early 1990s. They refused to recognize several other components of the Karabakh conflict, in particular, they were ignoring the incompatibility of Armenian-Turkish-Azerbaijani strategic interests in the foreseeable future; believing that the role of history in international politics is anachronistic (an outdated reality); naively perceiving the developed countries of the West as unbiased mediators and omnipotent guarantors of security, at the same time perceiving the development of the international political system as a unilinear progressive movement in the direction of 'general well-being and freedom'.

This worldview was in many aspects erroneous and vulnerable, because it viewed the problem of the liberated territory as alien to and in isolation from the Armenian Question. While the essence of the Armenian Question has been and remains in the creation of viable political and territorial conditions for the Armenian people to live freely and independently on their native soil of the Armenian Highland. There is only one solution to the Armenian Question to restore Armenian statehood if not in the entirety of Armenia (350,000 sq/km), then at least on a substantial piece of it, such that safe and long term existence and development of Armenian civilization can be secured. In other words, the Armenian Question is about the security of the Armenian nation, and it requires the provision of two prerequisites: The first is the creation of comprehensive and strong statehood, and the second is the territorial guarantees fortifying the security and viability of that statehood.

The experience of independent existence in the last decade and a half proves that Armenia has managed to survive only thanks to establishing of its control over the 42,000 sq/km of native Armenian land. This territory is that minimally necessary area with fairly natural boundaries which provides for the security of modern Armenia (including the Republic of Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic). Armenian statehood will hardly be capable to survive, let alone develop successfully, on a smaller territory.

Hence, the liberated territory is a guarantee of geopolitical weight and international authority of modern Armenia. It is a precondition for its military, water, food, energy, psychological, and, in the near future, demographic security. It is a part of the Armenian homeland in terms of history, cultural heritage and physical geography. The liberated territory is the means for restoring the historically traumatized psyche of the Armenians. It is a medium for the true meaning of Armenia. Finally, the liberated territory is a just, though minimal, compensation for the Armenian territorial, cultural, material and human losses and sufferings caused by the Turkish and Azerbaijani genocides, a compensation which has been attained by Armenian blood.

REGNUM: So, what is the formula of the settlement? And why is it so unacceptable for the Armenian public?

The available information suggests that Armenia and Azerbaijan, upon the mediation of the co-chairmen of the Minsk Group, work over a one or two page document on the main principles of settlement. These principles include the following: during the first phase of the “settlement” the Armenian forces withdraw from the liberated territory, except for the Kashatagh region (the Lachin corridor); a multi-national peacekeeping force enters the conflict region, then its re-settlement by the Azerbaijanis is organized. During the second stage, the Kashatagh region is being gradually passed over to the control of peacekeepers, and, then, according to official Baku, Kashatagh and also Shushi are to be re-inhabited by the Azerbaijani population. In 10-15 years a referendum is held on the future status of Artsakh, which, as Baku states, will be held on the whole territory of Azerbaijan and will in any case respect the “territorial integrity” of Azerbaijan in the traditional meaning of this concept held by Baku.

Obviously, these principles are so far off from the legitimate demands of the Armenian side that they can effectively never be accepted. They had been already rejected once in 1996-1997. However, the aforementioned document on the principles of the settlement may be drawn up by using as blurred and ambiguous terms as to allow Yerevan and Baku to interpret it each in their own ways.

Here is precisely the major menace for the Armenian side, since the single clearly defined provision in this document will demand the withdrawal of Armenian troops.

There also exists a widely held opinion that the Armenian authorities, in an attempt to outmaneuver their adversaries, create a favorable image in the eyes of the mediators and escape international isolation, imitate the seriousness of their intentions in the negotiations and play 'diplomatic poker' with Baku, hoping or being confident that Baku itself will reject the proposed portfolio of settlement, as it has happened more than once.

REGNUM: But perhaps imitation in the negotiations is a successful tactic by Armenia? So far, Azerbaijan has adopted a principle of “everything or nothing”, thereby affording Armenia the chance to preserve the status quo.

Even if we consider this an imitation of negotiations (unfortunately we don't have enough evidence to be sure here), such imitation seriously undermines Armenian interests.

First of all, the constant propaganda by the first political dignitaries of the Republic of Armenia about the inevitability of making territorial concessions infects the Armenian public with defeatism, undermines the national victorious spirit among the Armenians and the Armenian army, and does so on the threshold of possible Azerbaijani further aggression. In the meantime, a significant portion of the Armenian bureaucracy, as well as those young people who aspire for careers in public service, in the absence of any other official position, fully trust the rhetoric uttered by those at the top of the bureaucratic pyramid regarding the proposed settlement of the conflict, and they themselves take on the baton of propagating the concessions, thus reinforcing the defeatist moods even further.

Second, the prolonged imitation of negotiations by Yerevan about the readiness to make concessions on the one hand, and Baku's uncompromising stance on the other, involuntarily condition and persuade the Azeri public opinion as well as the international community that the only possible option for resolution is the withdrawal of the Armenian armed forces from the liberated territory i.e., the capitulation of the Armenian side.

Third, suchlike imitation sends out incorrect signals to the big international actors engaged in the conflict (in the capacity of third parties or mediators) about the true positions and demands of the Armenian side. Armenia cannot constantly bluff in the regional geopolitical game with such big players as the U.S., Russia and the EU. Such diplomatic gambles are rather transparent and doomed to be revealed, which could bring extremely unpleasant consequences for the gambler himself.

Fourth, such a game weakens the negotiating positions of the Armenian side, debilitating ones own position while, conversely, elevating the expectations and demands of the opponent. We faced an identical situation in 1996-1997. A passage I wrote about that period fully corresponds to today's unfavorable situation: "The latest studies on the theory and practice of negotiations have demonstrated that if one of the negotiating parties (in our case Armenia) adopts a soft and compromising stance, conducting a so-called “friendly bargaining”, while the other party (in this case Azerbaijan) takes an extremely hard stance or “hard bargaining”, then initiative and advantage always lies with the latter. At the end, some agreements may be reached but these will undoubtedly be in favor of the hard bargainer. But the most important consequence is that such agreements do not solve the problem, often leading to the resumption of the conflict.

REGNUM: And what can be said about the implementation of the document about the principles of settlement?

Even if such a document is signed, it cannot be implemented as long as a “Big Treaty”, which should elaborate all the details, is not concluded. But the latter cannot be concluded and ratified for a long period to come, because the settlement of the Karabakh conflict depends on specific details, rather than on clarification of the general principles. In conflicts of this type, each and every single seemingly miniscule detail is of the utmost importance.

For example, where the Armenian or the Azeri post will be stationed on this or that side of the hill can play the same role in the conflict as, say, the proclamation of the most important legal fact the future political status of Artsakh. Moreover, it is my strong belief that in the Karabakh conflict the real power factors are far more important than the pure legal elements. No legal document can provide the Armenian side with the security guarantees equivalent to land and territory. Even if, in the best case scenario, Azerbaijan does recognize the independence of Artsakh (though Baku doesn't want to even hear about it), such recognition will be merely a “paper” element. The moment after conceding the liberated territory to the enemy, Artsakh, as well as Syunik (the southernmost region of the Republic of Armenia — REGNUM) will, in military sense, find themselves in an undefendable situation and could be destroyed by a short-term Azerbaijani military offensive (here it is apt to recall the fall of Serbian Krajina). The conceding of territory will not exclude the probability of war but, enticing Baku's appetite, will rather create conditions for Azerbaijan to resume the war from the most favorable positions. Let us also remember that Azerbaijan, with the disguised encouragement and support of its ally Turkey, is yearning for and planning the destruction of Armenia in its entirety.

In any case, both the signing and implementation of the “Big Treaty” will be hindered not only by the difficulties in finding compromises in the details, but also by the internal political problems in Armenia and Azerbaijan, the interference by great and regional powers, various possible provocations, as well as the resistance by the people and leadership of Artsakh and the patriotic constituency within the Armenian public.

Thus, the question of the “Big Treaty” will remain unresolved, but a document on the principles of the settlement, if signed, will legitimize Baku's demands in the international arena and will hang upon Armenia's security as a “sword of Damocles”. Consequently, the signing of a document on the principles of the settlement requiring the withdrawal of the Armenian forces from the liberated territory in itself immediately jeopardizes Armenia's national security in a short-term context.

In the long run, the Karabakh conflict will be resolved in favour of Armenia or Azerbaijan not at the negotiating table but as a result of relative successes of these rival states in their respective state-building processes. It is precisely this paramount challenge building a militarily and economically viable Armenian state that predetermines the fate of the liberated territory as an absolute and inalienable strategic asset for Armenia and all Armenians.

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